“Motherhood is the second oldest profession in the world…It’s the biggest on-the-job- training program in existence today…It never questions age, height, religious preference, health, political affiliation, citizenship, morality, ethnic background, marital status, economic level, convenience, or previous experience.” ~ Erma Bombeck
“Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.” ~ Adrienne Rich
Somewhere between the joy and exhilaration of first-time motherhood at age twenty and these two groundbreaking books, I discovered my own truth about the realities of motherhood. It was somewhere between my mother’s generation’s day-to-day selflessness and complete devotion and those glamorous photos depicted in magazines of Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace of Monaco — both of whom had the luxury of live-in nannies and servants, and probably never washed a diaper in their lives.
There’s an old joke that goes: “I had given birth several times before I realized what was causing it.”
This is not entirely true in my case, but my first pregnancy was no less a complete surprise. Needless to say, having been raised in a strict Catholic household by two parents who were from a generation that probably never uttered the word “sex” in their entire lives, and being educated by nuns, my only frame of reference was books and movies. Especially the ones banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which was an organization “dedicated to identifying and combating objectionable content in motion pictures from the point of view of the Catholic Church”. This was the same organization that condemned the “scandalous” Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton affair and triggered the Vatican newspaper’s open letter criticizing them for “openly flaunting their adultery and living lives of erotic vagrancy.”
During the entirety of my four years of all-girls high school education at Girls Catholic Central High School in Detroit, the Church’s ancient mandate that God created sex solely for the purpose of procreation was drummed into our heads every day. And even after the arrival of “The Pill” in 1960, and after my marriage in 1964, I wasn’t even tempted to partake, because it would have been a mortal sin. And like millions of other practicing Catholics, I accepted the “Rhythm Method” as a less sinful choice in family planning.
So, let it suffice to say that my failure at this so-called “method” was monumental. Nevertheless, and without exception, each one of my four pregnancies was absolutely glorious and joyful. Not one day of morning sickness with either one, fast and uncomplicated deliveries, three by natural childbirth, and beautifully bonding and mutually fulfilling breastfeeding experiences each time. From the moment I felt my babies move inside me, a unique relationship was formed that has continued to this very day. One of my most treasured memories occurred during my first pregnancy. I was grocery shopping one afternoon, and as I pushed the shopping cart around the store, I felt a strange movement inside my lower abdomen, something similar to a butterfly flutter. And at that very moment, as I paused to take further notice, almost as if on cue, I heard the most incredibly beautiful voice singing on the store’s overhead speaker system. The song was People and it was the very first time I heard Barbra Streisand’s amazing voice.
These were the 1960s, and like most people of my generation, I recall this decade as a time of change, counter-culture, and political movements, as well as through the prism of anti-war protests, assassinations, and the struggle for civil rights. Personally, however, I seem to have floated through the ’60s in a horizontal position, with pregnancies and births as follows: A son in 1964, a daughter in 1967, a son in 1968, and a daughter in 1969.
My days as a suburban mom and housewife, complete with manicured lawn, baby carriages and strollers, and swing sets and station wagon were full and rewarding, for the most part. I thoroughly enjoyed my role as “Mommy” and experienced a kind of love for my children that no one could have accurately described to me in a million years. And yet, I also knew that I was not entirely complete and fulfilled as a person in my own right. Then, with the onset of the second wave of feminism and the woman’s movement, I began to search for answers outside of my suburban “Susie Homemaker” existence.
Realizing that most of the women in my family were still bound to antiquated ideas of household drudgery, wifely duties, and child-rearing practices, I sought solutions elsewhere.
Enter - Erma Bombeck, and Adrienne Rich
Through her popular and humorous syndicated columns, Erma Bombeck focused her humorous insights on household drudgery with brilliant precision.
“There is no virtue in waxing your floors — or your driveway.”
She expressed what I had suspected all along. That the age-old juggling act of mothers with small children and a husband and a house to take care of was a recipe for disaster. Something had to suffer. In my case, my children were my first priority. The rest played a lousy second fiddle. My house was nicely decorated and reasonably tidy, and I was a great cook, and seamstress, but I was admittedly a disinterested wife. I subscribed to Ladies’ Home Journal magazine solely for its trademark feature, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” — which I read in the privacy of my evening bath while whispering: ‘Hell No!’
By then our parish priest was visiting our home for dinner once a week to convince me that the bonds of marriage were unbreakable, but I was buying it less and less. Another complication was birth control. I came to the conclusion that I could not live with my Church’s antiquated teachings on birth control. According to my faith, the sole purpose of the sexual act is procreation. The very act of intercourse between a man and a woman is a contract to make a baby. Here’s where I parted company with that portion of Catholicism.
My on-going search for answers led me to Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born…” and I was completely awe-struck. It spoke to curious age-old silences about mothering that had never been addressed in my lifetime, and I found it amazingly freeing. As she wrote:
“In order for all women to have real choices all along the line, we need to fully understand the power and powerlessness embodied in motherhood in a patriarchal culture.” ~ Adrienne Rich
This really spoke to me because I have been challenging the patriarchal injunction of “art vs. personal fulfillment” for most of my adult life. Now that my children are grown and on their own, I believe I have finally found a balance that I can live with. My relationship with my children and grandchildren is solid and loving and supportive, and I actually like them as much as I love them, and I am privileged to be their mother/grandmother.